War of Words

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Akosua Busia has been a lot of things in her life: a princess (she is a member of Ghana's Royal House of Wenchi), an actress (she played "Nettie" in Steven Spielberg's "The Color Purple"), a novelist ("The Seasons of Beento Blackbird" was a bestseller) and a mom (she has one child with her former husband, director John Singleton).

Now, thanks to the findings of a Writers Guild arbitration panel, the Los Angeles resident is also a credited screenwriter. And lately, her desire to talk about that has made her a thorn in Disney's side.

Convened at Busia's request, the guild panel gave her first-position writing credit on Disney's forthcoming "Beloved," an adaptation of Toni Morrison's acclaimed novel. She shares credit with Richard LaGravenese ("The Bridges of Madison County") and Adam Brooks.

Busia, who completed the first draft of a "Beloved" script in 1991 at the behest of Oprah Winfrey, says she is gratified that her work--by her own admission, the first screenplay she ever wrote--has been recognized. But she is deeply disappointed, she says, by the treatment she's received from Disney, which has not allowed her to see an advance screening of the film. And though she resists saying so at first, Busia also feels let down by Winfrey herself.

"I find it sadly ironic," Busia wrote to Winfrey earlier this year, "that here we have a story . . . 'Beloved,' [about] the daughter of a captured African woman brought across the seas and sold at a price, fight[ing] for freedom for herself and her children from their white oppressors.

"And then here I am, a black female writer from Africa, writing the script, and then being left in a position to battle alone against Disney, who recommends that two white, male writers . . . be credited instead of me!"

What's unusual about this battle is that Busia, who has compared herself to David taking on Goliath, already has won what aggrieved screenwriters seek when they resort to arbitration: credit. Given that, many people connected to the film say they are surprised that Busia has contacted the news media to tell her story.

"This whole thing is shocking," said Kate Forte, executive vice president of Harpo Films, Winfrey's company. "Akosua had a friendship with Oprah based on [co-starring in] 'The Color Purple,' and Oprah gave her the biggest gift in the world: a crack at 'Beloved'--which is amazing for someone who had never written a screenplay. She should be dancing in the streets in celebration that she's associated with this incredible movie."

'What More Does She Want?'

Disney spokesperson Terry Curtin sounded genuinely baffled.

"What more does she want? She was paid. She was credited. I don't see any evidence that she's been wronged," said Curtin, who confirmed that Busia has not been invited to any screenings, but said that was because she has appeared to be hostile to the film. "Now that she's approaching media outlets, we're not sure how to treat her. She's made it difficult to invite her into the fold."

For her part, however, Busia says she's only conducting her own interviews because she felt shunned by the movie's official publicity machine. She says she set out to draw positive attention to the film, which she describes as "majorly important for people to see." But she has been hurt, she says, by recent articles, done with Disney's cooperation, that downplay her involvement.

"Here comes Oprah saying to the L.A. Times that for eight years she searched for a writer," Busia said, referring to a recent article about the making of the film. "The Disney production notes had the same story in it. How is that supposed to fit with [the fact that] seven years ago I wrote a script?"

Busia says she got a prepublication copy of the novel "Beloved" in 1987, after Morrison gave a manuscript to Busia's sister, a professor at Rutgers University. The minute she finished reading it, Busia says, she knew it could be a great film. Knowing that she couldn't afford to purchase the rights, she says she told her friend Winfrey about it.

"I told her, you've got to read it in one sitting," she recalled. "Later, I came home and my answering machine was filled with Oprah messages--a running commentary as she was reading 'Beloved.' "

Winfrey, whose associates say was given the book by someone other than Busia, secured the rights from Morrison and began looking for a writer.

During this time, Busia says she was in close touch with Winfrey, who at one point sent her a short treatment done by another writer. Busia hated it because, she said, "it reduced the story to the slave trade and, 'Oh, if massuh would just let us have a piece of land.' "

Busia called Winfrey, she recalled: "I said, 'Don't do this. "Beloved" isn't a slave epic, it's one of the greatest love stories ever told, about a mother and what she would do rather than see her children in bondage.' Oprah said, 'God, you've articulated what I felt when I read it. Maybe when we get a writer, I'll send it to you and you could make notes.' "

Busia says she agreed. But then, a few nights later, she awoke at 3 a.m. with a vision of how the movie should begin. Though she'd never written anything but poetry and journal entries, she says, she typed out 28 pages and sent it to Winfrey without her name on it.

"Oprah got those 28 pages and she called me and said, 'Oh, we have found the writer for "Beloved," but they didn't put their name on it!' " Busia said. When she revealed herself to be the author, she says Winfrey was surprised. They had talked about the possibility of Busia playing the character Beloved, but never about her writing the script.

Eventually, Winfrey contracted with Busia to do just that, buying her a computer and flying her to Jamaica for five weeks to do the bulk of the writing. The resulting 165 pages were longer than the average script, but it was apparently compelling enough to attract director Peter Weir, who entered into discussions with Winfrey. The deal fell through when Weir did not want to commit to casting Winfrey herself as the main character, Sethe.

At least one person who read Busia's script at the time, actor Danny Glover, who stars in "Beloved" and considers himself a devoted Morrison fan, thought it was first-rate.

"It was a good script. A damn good script," he said. "I keep good scripts. And I still have that one."

But no studio would agree to make it into a film.

"My job is to get the movies made," said Forte of Harpo Films. Busia's script "languished for years. I could not get financing. I got rejected at studios . . . I determined that the best thing to do was start all over with a new writer."

At Winfrey's request, Forte hired LaGravenese, who completed a new draft. Everyone agrees that it was this script that attracted director Jonathan Demme in early 1997. Then, because LaGravenese was busy directing his own script (the forthcoming "Living Out Loud"), another writer, Brooks, was hired to work with Demme. He wrote more than 12 drafts before principal photography began in June 1997.

Forte swears "on a stack of Bibles" that neither LaGravenese, Brooks nor Demme read Busia's script before the movie was shot (an assertion that LaGravenese and Brooks confirm). The reason that much of the shooting script resembles Busia's first draft, Forte explained, was that all three writers were drawing from the same source material: Morrison's book.

"I've never seen three writers so faithful to a book in my life," Forte said. "There are key dramatic events that happen in the book and anyone is going to choose those events."

Not surprisingly, Busia sees it differently. She has a list of what she calls "the little pitfalls"--places where the final script includes things she says she invented that are not in the book. Most of them are small details, like the decision to make it rain in a particular scene, but listed together they make for interesting reading.

"I don't know who did it," she said, stressing that while she believes someone cribbed from her work, she has no idea whom to accuse. "But I know this: I wrote 'Beloved.' And somewhere along the line they reverted to my script. That's why I have credit."

Busia's interpretation of the arbitrators' decision sounds like common sense, but it is not necessarily accurate. According to Cathy Reed, director of credits administration at the Writers Guild, first-position credit is awarded for one of two reasons: Either the writer wrote chronologically first or the writer contributed more substantively to the final script. Arbitration proceedings are confidential, so it is impossible to know which reason was employed in this case.

One thing is sure: The folks at Harpo Films must have thought Busia had some affinity for Morrison's work, because in 1996 they approached her about writing a screenplay based on another of the author's novels, "Tarbaby." The deal was never made, Busia said, because she felt no affection for the book's characters. Later, Harpo asked her to consider writing a script for Veronica Chambers' 1996 book, "Mama's Girl," but she became ill and had to decline.

"I do think Akosua has talent," Forte said. "That's the shame in all this."

Said Busia, wryly: "It certainly would have been better for them if I was working for them now."

LaGravenese and Brooks, meanwhile, worry that Busia's comments will detract from a film project they feel is bigger and more important than any one of them.

"This is Toni Morrison's story. It's not [Busia's]. It's not mine," said LaGravenese, who chafed at the implication that a white male writer could not do justice to the story. "All I did, with reverence for [Morrison's] material, was find a cinematic structure that was appropriate to make the book into a film. It had nothing to do with my personal experience. People asked me, 'Did you research this?' I didn't have to. Toni Morrison did."

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